The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Thoughts on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector -Please read Luke 18:9-14.

THE CONTEXT. a. After concluding his parable about prayer in Luke 18:1-8, the story of the persistent widow, Jesus dives into this, another parable on prayer. It’s not clear if this story is told to his disciples separately, or to a larger audience. This story has the Temple as its backdrop.

b. Some think Jesus makes this parable take place during private devotions at the entrance to the Temple. But many think that this takes place in public, at corporate worship, during the service of the atonement sacrifice. It was Jewish custom to say one’s prayers out loud, so this easily could have taken place with others present, and with the two men praying where others could hear.

c. The two men go up to the Temple service at the same time, and they go down at the same time, after the service is done.

d. The atonement sacrifice was held twice daily: at dawn and at 3 pm. It is the only daily service of public worship at the Temple. It was a time when a priest would sacrifice a lamb for the sins of the people.

MAIN CHARACTERS. a. The Pharisee. They go to great pains to sacrificially maintain the religious traditions and standards. They are highly respected, if not revered by the Jewish people, for they were strict, precise observers of all the details of the Jewish law. Pharisee meant “separated one.” This particular Pharisee in the story was a hyper-Pharisee, on the fringes of the observant Pharisees, because of his fasting twice/week and tithing from everything he has. He was seen as even more pious, more righteous, than your average Pharisee.

b. The Tax Collector. The term publican could also be used. Tax collectors were rejected by all Jews, because they were traitors, swindlers, collaborators with Rome. As such, they were considered ritually impure. They were at the opposite extreme of this hyper-Pharisee.

c. They did have similarities. Both wanted to stand before God, both approached God in the Temple, a place set apart for prayer. Both wanted to enter His holy presence. Both had a measure of self-knowledge that they were bringing to their prayers. Both came with the intention to pray.

d. Both these main characters are involved in this story about prayer, and about righteousness and how it is achieved.

THE PHARISEE. a. He “stood up and prayed by himself,” separate from the tax collector. Strict obedience to the law meant that even if he leaned against the clothing of an impure person, he would be ritually unclean.

b. Pharisees were literally separated ones. In daily prayers, they thanked God that they weren’t “a gentile, a servant, or a woman,” and “they are not as the rest of men.” They viewed themselves as the truly righteous, and everyone else was not. The term “despised” literally means “to count as nothing,” the epitome of arrogance.

c. Self-righteousness was in their character. A common rabbinic prayer about Pharisees was: “If there were only two righteous men in the world, he and his son were these; if only one, it was he.”

d. This particular Pharisee believed he was righteous, in part, because he compared himself to the tax collector. His eyes were on the tax collector. He set a low bar. Naturally he would emerge as the pious one in comparison. His eyes were not on God, so he came out smelling like a rose, religiously speaking. He makes himself look better in his own eyes by comparing himself to an obvious sinner. He looked down at the tax collector, then up to himself. His eyes never made it all the way to God.

e. By standing aloof, by standing “by himself,” he made a statement that he wanted to remain religiously superior, ritually pure.

f. By praying aloud the way he did, he was in essence preaching to others, and to the tax collector, what he thought of the impure, the unrighteous. He was publically insulting the tax collector in particular, and justifying himself.

g. By fasting twice a week, he was displaying his piety… Mondays and Thursdays were the days of fasting, because the Pharisees believed that Moses went up on Mt Sinai to receive the law on a Thursday, and returned with it on a Monday. So, fasting on those two days was considered a special mark of holiness and dedication. It also happens that those two days were the busy, regular market days of the general public. There were always special services for the fasters in the synagogues during those two days, and the “regular people” were sure to notice who were “holier” than the others. Pharisees tended to make sure they looked fairly miserable while fasting, so everyone knew they were fasting. Fasting thus became a public point of spiritual pride. Tithing became another method of separation from the unworthy and a proof of religious superiority.

h. Pharisees “had the kind of faith in themselves and their own powers that weaker vessels are content to have in God, and the ground of this confidence was their own achievements in piety and morality.” (T.W. Manson).

i. His “prayer” was not even a prayer at all. He didn’t thank God for his goodness, he didn’t praise God for His holiness and glory, and he didn’t offer a petition for himself or anybody else. His words were merely a “self-advertisement” (K. Bailey). Because of his self-righteousness, he turned a holy religion into something sacreligious.

j. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount highlight his thoughts here: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and scribes, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:20).

THE TAX COLLECTOR. a. He “stood at a distance” from everyone else. There were good reasons for that. First, he was ritually impure and viewed as a scoundrel by fellow Jews. He was a social outcast, and no one wanted to be near him. Also, he was so broken that he felt he was unworthy to be with the worshipping group. He knew he was a highly unrighteous person compared to everyone else. He didn’t deserve to publically worship with religious Jews.

b. He “beat his breast,” which is what pious Jews did during the intense confessions during the Day of Atonement. Repentant Jews beat the breast because it contained the heart, the source of sin in one’s life. Bible translator Dr. Brian Simmons says that the Greek text uses a word that implies he was saying to God, “Look at me as you look at the blood-sprinkled mercy seat.”

c. The Greek words for “have mercy” refer to the atonement sacrifice. He in effect prayed, “Make an atonement sacrifice for me, a sinner.” He knew he was riddled with sin, and he was a broken man because of that, depending on God’s mercy for forgiveness through the Temple sacrifice. He also was a hopeless case because he knew he had to leave his way of life, his career. And he knew very well the demands of the Law: Full restitution of all his fraudulent profits, plus an added fifth; also, in the case of theft, the Law required a payment of at least four times the amount stolen. He would have no idea how to remember everyone he defrauded, everyone with whom he has had fraudulent dealings. It was hopeless for him. His only hope was God’s mercy.

d. While the Pharisee set the bar low and compared himself to the tax collector, the tax collector set the bar high and used God as his measurement. His eyes were on God, so he realized how far he fell from true goodness. Righteous God was his reference point.

e. Faithful Jews hearing Jesus’ story would have immediately thought of Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” And also Isaiah 57:15: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

f. In his humble brokenness he sought God’s mercy and forgiveness, and he went home justified. The Pharisee basically wasted his time in the Temple, and went home justified only by himself.

FINAL THOUGHTS. a. One of Jesus’ great reversals: the proud will be brought low, the humble will be brought high. In O.T. terms, to be exalted was to be delivered, redeemed. It also meant to be lifted close to God, to be elevated in relation to God.

b. We are meant to take both of these characters personally. We all have a little, or a  lot, of the Pharisee in us. None of us are above being exactly like the Pharisee in our self-righteousness and pride in religious obedience. And, in our best moments, we can be like the tax collector… humble, contrite, broken, honest before God, repentant and dependent on God’s mercy.

c. There is a slippery slope between the Pharisee and the tax collector. If one isn’t careful, one could easily slide from the person being humble, to the person who is proud of his humility; from the person being broken and contrite to the person being whole and self-righteous. Be careful, prayerful, and honest.


  1. During the church service, the pastor invites members of the congregation to offer a morning prayer. The chairman of the Deacon Board immediately stands up and walks confidently to the pulpit. He begins to thank the Lord that he has been spared any indignities, that he has not been arrested like those folks he just visited in the jail. He thanks the Lord that he has been able to keep the Lord’s commandments carefully, that he has never had an affair, and that he unfailingly gives his 10% tithe every month. He then thanks the Lord that he has had such a good obedient life. He closes with, “Thank you, Lord, for all these blessings.” After that prayer, a disheveled and stooping man stumbles to the pulpit. Lo and behold, this man was just released from prison for embezzling the church’s pension fund. As far as anyone knew, he wasn’t even a Christian. The congregation was stunned. He was more than a social outcast, he was a traitor and a thief. The man proceeds to stammer out a broken request for God’s forgiveness. He couldn’t even look the congregation in the eye. His entire prayer was, “Lord, I have sinned. I am a desperate sinner who owes so much. Please have mercy on me.” He then stumble his way back to the pew.
  2. Put yourself in the congregation. How would you have reacted to the Deacon’s prayer? What would have been the congregation’s reaction to the embezzler’s prayer?
  3. If you were the pastor speaking immediately afterwards, how would you have responded to these 2 prayers?
  4. Why is it so easy for us to put ourselves on a pedestal, even knowing by doing so we invite humiliation eventually?
  5. This is another example of the self-righteous being spiritually foolish. Did the Lord hear his prayer?
  6. Beating his breast, his heart, was the sinner’s way of expressing grief over his sinfulness. Are there other ways to show guilt and remorse?
  7. What are different ways we can avoid going from sincere humility to being proud of our humility? From being obedient to being prideful of our obedience? From trusting God’s goodness to trusting in our own goodness?

Resources: Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes; Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father; The Passion Translation; Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible; Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus.

One Reply to “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector”

  1. I love the thought that when our eyes on God, we realize just how far we have fallen from true goodness.